Former SKorean Prez no more

SEOUL: Kim Dae-Jung, a democracy campaigner who survived assassination attempts and a death sentence to win South Korea's presidency and the Nobel peace prize, died on Tuesday aged 85.

"He was declared dead at 1:43 pm (0443 GMT)," said a spokesman for Seoul's Severance Hospital.

"His heart began failing at 1:35 pm and stopped minutes later despite our efforts to revive it."

Kim, who was president from 1998-2003, had been admitted to hospital on July 13 with pneumonia and related complications.

He held South Korea's first-ever summit with North Korea in 2000 and was awarded the Nobel prize later that year for his efforts.

"We lost a great political leader today," current President Lee Myung-Bak said in a statement.

"His accomplishments and aspirations to achieve democratisation and inter-Korean reconciliation will long be remembered by the people."

Kim, a towering figure in South Korea's long struggle for democracy, campaigned strenuously against the 1961-1979 rule of dictator Park Chung-Hee. In August 1973 he was kidnapped by Korean CIA agents from a Tokyo hotel. He was about to be dumped in the sea but swift intervention by Washington and Tokyo saved his life.

In May 1980, during the army-backed rule of Chun Doo-Hwan, Kim was thrown into prison on charges of treason. He was sentenced to death by a martial law court but reprieved following strong US pressure.

A wave of mass street protests in 1987 ended decades of army-backed rule but Kim only won the presidency in 1997 after his fourth attempt.

He took office the following February at the height of the Asian economic crisis which ravaged South Korea and forced it to seek a 57 billion dollar bailout from the International Monetary Fund.

Under Kim's leadership, the nation pulled itself out of the crisis and launched major economic reforms and corporate restructuring.

He never wavered on the need for reconciliation with North Korea, even though his "sunshine" engagement policy failed to halt its drive for nuclear weapons.

"This is the best way to end the national tragedy and make a reunified motherland," he said in his final speech in office.

In domestic politics, too, Kim practised forgiveness. One of his first acts as president was to pardon Chun, who had been convicted of treason and corruption after leaving office.

Chun this month visited Severance hospital to deliver a goodwill message to the man he once condemned to death.

There was confusion even during Kim's presidency about his date of birth. His peace centre and presidential library gives it as January 6, 1924. The Nobel Prize website and various reference books say he was born on December 3, 1925.

"South Korea lost one of its greatest leaders today," the conservative ruling Grand National Party said in a statement.

"During his lifetime former president Kim dedicated himself to democracy, human rights and the development of relations between South and North Korea."

The main opposition Democratic Party described Kim as "the great teacher of the age."

It added: "We are not ready to bid farewell to you, who did not give in to dictatorship, overcame the economic crisis and made us aware that we, divided by hostility for half a century, belong to one nation."

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, a former South Korean foreign minister currently visiting his homeland, plans to visit the hospital later to pay condolences, his aides said.

A temporary mourning altar is being set up at the hospital.

Kim is survived by his wife Lee Hee-Ho and three sons.